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Spotting Real-World Architecture in Monument Valley

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The Lake Palace Hotel, Jag Niwas, on island site on Lake Pichola in first light of early morning, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In a special installment of her monthly column, Lange delves into the virtual netherworld for a look at the iPad-friendly architecture of the blockbuster game Monument Valley. And stay tuned for next week's regularly scheduled programming as Lange hits the street for more IRL architecture observation.

Minimalism in architecture means smooth surfaces, a limited color and materials palette, a refusal to clutter or adorn. Minimalism builds the should-nots into its structure—if you need to #Konmari afterward, you're not listening—setting out a lifestyle that may be difficult but should reward you with a living space of monochrome dishware, right-angled benches, and columns of natural light. It may result in a building that looks of another world, absent the irrationality (and dirt) of what we commonly refer to as real life.

Minimalism in game-making shares many of the same qualities, at least according to Neil McFarland, Director of Games at UsTwo, makers of Monument Valley, the addictive spatial puzzle-solving app that's clocked four million downloads and counting. "There is very little in the levels that is superfluous. There are no achievements in the game, no unlockables, no secrets. We really wanted it to be just about the experience of traveling through those monuments and nothing else."

The monuments have strong ties to architecture, resembling Islamic minarets, Indian step-wells, and Scottish castles and, I would argue, the more recent ramparts of Ricardo Bofill and Peter Eisenman. Each level is tinted a different sunset color: flaming aqueducts in a teal mist, lavender towers against a dusky cobalt sky, and even a terrifying white path and waterfall all alone in a black universe. You are little Princess Ida (you have no choice of avatar), you wear a white dress and a white wimple and you make your way, chapter by chapter, past squawking crows and over precipices, up the sides of cubes and down flights of stairs, always seeking the next podium, the next open door.

"We plundered different architectural styles," says McFarland. "It started out with Islamic domes, then after that the castles. A lot of it is just changing the shape of the rooftop because essentially everything is made out of squares and cubes." During the design process the team experimented with more texture, detail, and scale information, but found it was distracting to the players. "There was too much information, or the puzzles were hidden [because] there were too many other things on the screen to look at." Every level was user-tested to be challenging, but not impossible.

"We experimented with secrets," McFarland says, but "ended up finding that was hindering our design process because we had to think about places to put them, and they were distracting to the player as well. If there's a hint that something else is going on in the game video game players will focus on that and obsess about being completionists. We didn't want to detract from the simplicity of the game. It is just about this one journey, there's nothing else. That's why we would call it minimalist."

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Much of Monument Valley operates in the impossible space drawn by M. C. Escher, whose 1960 drawing Ascending and Descending (↑) Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong has acknowledged as an inspiration. The Escher drawing even features a couple of figures scratching their heads about how to get around. The connection between Escher's drawing and Wong's original Monument Valley concept sketch is clear; Wong's is also strikingly similar to the finished product. The whole structure floats in space in a way that suggests infinity, and it features the same isometric perspective, same gelato colors, and a similar sequence of steps and ladders and domes to give it a touch of character. In Monument Valley, sometimes you seem to be floating on water and sometimes in space; sometimes positive and negative are reversed, and you may be underground in paths and tunnels carved from rock. "We were all so taken with [Escher's] image," says McFarland, that the designers said, "We don't know what this game is, but if we can make that into a game we will be really happy."

For the design buff, the game seems rife with visual cues, allusions to the built world, and academic references. Even if Monument Valley's designers aren't familiar with deconstructivism, 1970s architecture may have infiltrated its digital world sideways, as architecture-school graduates turn into programmers and once rarefied ideas turn into placeless pins. Monument Valley's chapters have to cover a lot of territory, in scale and geography.

Sometimes Ida seems very small, like an earlier puzzle-solving heroine in a gridded Wonderland, wending your way through a music box. Sometimes she appears to be climbing a pixel version of Philip Johnson's concrete-block Monument to Lincoln Kirstein (1985), "a staircase to nowhere." Sometimes she finds herself holding a red flower, laying it on a rectangular sarcophagus in a sea of sarcophagi that strongly resemble Eisenman's Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004). Sometimes you find yourself tripping along a wall that resembles Bofill's La Muralla Roja housing project (1968), "characterized by a series of interlocking stairs, platforms, and bridges." Elsewhere the game recalls Tarsem Singh's cult movie The Fall, filmed at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur (a real-life white, floating world) and the Chand Baori stepwell, a Qbert landscape made exclusively of blocks. Some scenes are more perplexing, and require your seven-year-old to show you which button to push or which screw rotates the cube so that what was once an unbridged gap closes, in digital space, and allows you to cross.

Floating worlds have long fascinated Ken Wong. He has a Pinterest board to prove it: underground animal houses from Oliver Jeffers' The Great Paper Caper, Breughel-esque illustrations by Jacek Yerka, and bonsai treehouses. Many of the examples play with your sense of scale and fragility, as the game does, with strikingly similar landscapes carved from books and from stone. I was also reminded of the airborne island, houses, and castles of Hayao Miyazaki's movies, particularly Castle in the Sky, a precursor to Pandora in George Lucas's Avatar. On his Architecture board, Wong has pinned Edward Burtynsky's photographs of Vermont marble quarries—which show the excavated surface left behind after the material used to build cities is taken elsewhere—along with the Red Wall in Uzbekistan, the 22-dome Russian Church of the Transfiguration of our Savior, and another stepped Indian site, Jantar Mantar.

The game's underlying references to architecture go deeper than specific projects, however. There are parallels between the rationale behind pre-digital drawings and the mode in which the on-screen monuments are rendered. Each chapter of Monument Valley is drawn as an isometric projection, a method of showing an object or building in three dimensions, with limited distortion, that allows the viewer visual access to both surface and interior. It was popular among architects during the 1970s, when most drawings were still done by hand, for the amount of information it could contain. During this period Peter Eisenman designed a series of ten houses that were circulated as isometric drawings: abstract compositions of walls, columns, and apertures that give you the same global view as Escher's drawing, while suggesting the same impossibility of occupation. Eisenman's house projects even float, in endless variation, in white-on-white space.

For the architecture fan, Monument Valley's chapters suggest those houses brought to life (a few were, in fact, built) with the onion domes and crenellations needlessly added—even if the game's designers say they are unfamiliar with these works. "As graphic designers and game designers, there is a taste for isometrics that's isolated from any knowledge of old architectural practices," says McFarland. "It looks pretty good very quickly if you draw an isometric." Isometric projections have been a popular technique for games involving moving around large-scale maps, but it is Monument Valley's simplified aesthetic that points toward architecture drawing in the 1970s.

There's some irony in the fact that architects' digital tools have become so sophisticated they no longer need the isometric, even as game-makers embrace its lo-fi sensibility. I would argue that Eisenman and UsTwo turned to the projection for the same reason: its ability to let the viewer see everything at once, plus its ability to create a world out of simple lines and blocks. Minimalism was baked in, and adding realistic wall texture to the digital world would have been as awkward as stucco texture is to Eisenman's House VI.

From the beginning, McFarland says, they wanted Monument Valley to be a game for non-gamers,which means, accordingly: no punishment, no time limits, and no endlessness. "We thought it was powerful and meaningful to a player who is not used to playing a lot of video games to go, Oh right, I've actually finished that." The result is that many puzzles were abandoned when the designers realized they would be too difficult. "We could put out Monument Valley Hard, but it would appeal to a much smaller audience."

Stills from the floating worlds depicted in Monument Valley, courtesy of UsTwo.

That non-gamer audience also pointed the team toward the single, striking image that greets you at the beginning of each chapter. As with Wong's concept art, each stands alone as a floating world, and is simple enough to stand out in the cluttered and often unsophisticated world of the app store. "We strove for that moment of people browsing the app store and finding it," McFarland says. Initially, the color choices from chapter to chapter were arbitrary, but once the team had developed a number more than a handful, they printed them all out and worked on balancing the palette. Initially, there was too much blue.

When McFarland talks about the user experience of the game—no secrets, no time limit, no alternate routes, and no reading—he could also be talking about the user experience we seek in IRL places like museums, where missed galleries, pushy crowds and unclear paths also disrupt your concentration and enjoyment.

As I played along, I felt that the game's designers had, both intentionally and unwittingly, absorbed many lessons of modern architecture. But I also came to feel that architects could learn a great deal from playing the game about how people move through space, about which options our instincts scream out against, and about impossible moves real buildings can only suggest. In trying to make a game that non-gamers would like, the team at UsTwo built a space legible for almost everyone.

· All columns by Alexandra Lange [Curbed]
· Monument Valley game [Official site]
· Explore the impossible architecture of 'Monument Valley' [The Verge]
· The beautiful 'Monument Valley' just got even bigger [The Verge]
· Little Worlds> [Pinterest]
· Peter Eisenman: Ten Houses [CCA Collection Archives]